At daybreak, the party of five furtively snuck out of the battalion. Locke, Caen, Hans, Gulas, as well as Korby set out in the opposite direction of the troops.
In the blink of an eye, it was already late autumn. In both Faustian and Shalor, the cooler seasons would chill one down to their bones, while the summer would seem to roast one alive. Hence, for the time being, the troops only marched from noon into the evening.
Fortunately, the two barons had decided beforehand to hasten their journey. They were now less than two days away from the city of Bimore, where the corps headquarters was stationed.
Wallier was a small city that used to house more than two thousand citizens. There was nothing out of the ordinary about this city, but one bizarre quality it had was its wall, which was easily comparable to that of a medium-sized city, as it stood tall at 10 metres above the ground.
It was rumoured that this wall was erected by the last mayor, Baron Eibik. For a time, it became a running joke among the nobles of Shalor -- what did a city as small as this need such a tall wall for?
At this moment, the nobles who used to ridicule Baron Eibik were stricken with regret. Why didn't they ever think of repairing the wall? It was owing to this 10-metre-tall great wall that the Shalorians within the city were temporarily shielded from the flames of war.
It was for this reason that Wallier had become a sanctuary for the rich and the wealthy merchants, as well as a place for the Shalorian refugees to call home.
If you figured that Locke and his followers were headed towards Wallier, then you would be.
This time around, Locke had not come to kill and plunder. As a matter of fact, he was here for a trade. Although they did happen to capture a handful of smugglers and resellers the last time they hit a small town, they got nothing fancier than regular foodstuffs and Shalorian coins -- these were far from the worth of a king's ransom. Having lost hope, Korby suggested they head to Wallier for the bazaar there.
Truth be told, every city had its very own cluster of dealers in the shadows. There were robbers, smugglers, and all too many gangsters. Here, one would be able to buy things not typically available on the normal market, with the only drawback being a steep price. This was the black market.
Korby had mingled in the black market before. Back when Farlans was bustling with prosperity, it was also home to one. When the Faustian troops broke into the city, the black market subsequently vanished into thin air. Being well informed on the immense financial and material resources these dealers-in-the-dark held in possession, Korby prodded Locke to bring his team along not for leisure shopping but to sell their own goods.
"Shalor is doomed. Any man of keen insight would know this at heart," Korby chirped away as he slithered amongst the crowd, while Locke and the others ignored him. "Thalers are now considered the preferred currency -- those black-market merchants are sure to take these at any cost."
This was Korby's true objective -- to trade Shalorian coins with thalers. Within the Faustian caravan, the exchange rate of coins against thalers was two to one; meanwhile, in Shalor, some folk would gladly surrender up to five coins for a thaler. This was his get-rich-quick plan.
For the occasion, not only did Locke bring his fresh haul from the 'sweeping' he did at the small town, he also borrowed a lump sum from Yoshk -- a whopping 400 silver thalers. These were all with Hans and Gulas, which explained the clanking bulges in their back pockets.
Locke thought the business model feasible after some serious consideration. To be safe, though, he also brought his three trusty subordinates with him. The gangsters in the black market would likely pose no problem to Hans and the others -- they would still have the upper hand even if faced with seven or eight each -- let alone Locke himself.
The few lost no time and hustled straight down to Wallier as soon as they crept out of the camp. Before the morning mist fully dissipated, they had already arrived outside the city.
Wallier and Farlans seemed to be cast from the same mould, with the only visible difference being that the Wallier's wall was a couple of metres taller. However, no matter how high the wall stood, nothing would change the fact that Locke and his team still viewed this as a vulnerable city.
On top of said wall, several guards were stationed all over. Situated on the western wall was an eye-catching, broad crater -- that came about as a result of the stern warning Baron Cashel had given them on the day before when their troops passed by the city.
The crater instilled in the Shalorians an endless wave of fear and worry, but it awarded Locke's party with brimming confidence.
A throng of people could be seen already gathered outside the city gates, all of whom were refugees yearning for entry. To many's dismay, the city gates were barely ajar, as opposed to its usual unbarred state -- possibly a result of the hefty pressure the visit the soldiers paid to them yesterday.
Despite being ahead of time, Locke and his teammates' path was cut off as they stood at the end of the growing queue tens of metres long. At this rate, there was no way they could make it back by lunch. It would be a cause for celebration if they were even let in before noon!
Locke frowned and shot a glance at Korby, to which he responded with an assertive "Watch this!" As he finished, he marched over to the city gates and exchanged a few words with the soldier stationed at the gates when his left hand stealthily brushed past the pant pocket of one of the guards. The guard could instantly detect the added weight in his pocket, and with a meaningful squint at his colleagues, he patted Korby's shoulder. Deal sealed.
Korby waved at Locke and the others still waiting in line, who soon walked up to the gates. Around them, livid refugees glared daggers at them for cutting in line and two of the more irritable ones even appeared eager to pick a fight. Still, one look from Hans was all it took for them to swallow their tongues and shuffle back into place. It was only then that it dawned on them that none of these men was an easy target.
Hans' height of nearly two metres alone was more than enough to shut these jaundiced, scraggy refugees up, not to mention Gulas, who was on a par with Hans in terms of strength. Even those who were on the 'leaner' side, namely Locke and Caen, were around 1.8 metres tall. They were by most accounts burly figures.
Gulas crossed his arms in front of his chest and let out a cold grunt at the horde of onlookers. The crowd immediately fell back in fear, as if they had just witnessed a terrifying beast.
When Locke and his party approached the gates, however, the gatekeepers all tightened their grips around their spears once they had a clearer view of their faces, as though they were an appalling enemy. At once, Korby interjected in an attempt to explain, but it was to no avail, as the soldiers could unmistakably feel the distinctive aura of dread emanating from the few visitors -- anyone who had served in the army could sense this.
As elites within the army, it was no surprise that the eerie air they exuded was rather blood curling. Seeing that the guards had zero intention of giving way, Korby swiped his right hand across the pocket of the soldier from earlier, and a sliver of reluctance promptly manifested itself on his face.
Catching on to the soldier's expression swaying, Korby speedily gathered what little coins he had left on himself and shoved them all to the soldier. Finally, the soldier put away his weapon and nodded grimly at his comrades, signalling them to follow suit. Funnily enough, though their spears rested idly behind them, the spearheads were still vaguely pointed towards the group.
"You better not wreak havoc!" warned the soldier in a threatening manner, but all he got in response was an eye roll from Gulas.
Once the few managed to enter the city, Gulas sent a hand flying at Korby's shoulder. With a loud slap, Korby's frail body almost crumpled under the impact. "Not bad, little one. You're quite the witty kid -- how come we couldn't sense it when we first caught you?"
Flattered, Korby chuckeld. "Herr, you must be joking. The only gatekeepers the city can still afford to belch out are no more than rookie cannon fodders. How experienced can they get? A few dozen copper coins are all that's needed to move them."
As previously mentioned, the Wallier and Farlans were not much different from each other. In actuality, Wallier was even worse off. None of the stores that lined the streets remained open for business, and sprawled all over the place was a sea of debilitated refugees.
Locke looked to be in a rush, exhibiting no interest in sightseeing. He turned to Korby and said, "Lead the way."
"Herr, it's almost always a given that black markets are based in the most chaotic sectors of every city," Korby explained as he walked. "As of now, there has to be no place more chaotic than the slums."
The group trod carefully amongst a labyrinthine network of sheds, where people around them welcomed the uninvited guests with muddled eyes, dishevelled hair, pale complexions, and ragged clothing that barely covered their bodies.
The few of them paid no attention to the intrigued refugees as they advanced. Suddenly, a barefooted person with his hair covering his face staggered hastily towards the group. "Herr, do a good deed! I haven't eaten in three days…" Before he could reach Locke, Caen dashed forwards from the side and stopped him by the road.
This was merely a trivial incident on their expedition and the few forgot about it in no time. However, Locke noted that the person only stopped because of the copper coin that magically appeared between his fingers. The only person to get close to him was Caen.
Soon, they halted in their tracks before a black, wooden shed. Standing guard at the entrance were four gangsters armed with wooden sticks and iron picks. Though the weaponry they wielded looked ludicrous, these were, in fact, the only weapons permitted in the city. This was a result of merchants and the wealthy being scared witless -- they no longer regarded it appropriate to allow civilians to own regular weapons.
If these four mobsters were found sticking out like sore thumbs amidst the surrounding refugees, Locke and his party would be as conspicuous as a crane standing in a brood of chickens. One glance was all it took to discern them from ordinary citizens.
Gulas and Hans' brawn served as an admission ticket for them -- the four gangsters didn't so much as attempt to thwart their entry at all, which in turn aroused Locke's suspicion.
Although the wooden shed was at least a hundred to 200 square metres in size, there was no doubt this would prove inadequate for a city's black market. Indeed, once the gang stepped in, what greeted them was a flight of stairs leading downwards.
"What is this?" It was Locke's first time seeing an underpass.
"It's a basement, Herr," Korby swiftly came forth to clarify. "Word has it that it was originally built by a caster."
This was Locke's second encounter with a caster's creation -- the first was the couch he saw in Master Solon's tent.
"There's also a black market on the streets and it's even bigger," Korby added. "But with our identities, it's not too good an idea to roam about aboveground. That's why I've brought you here to the underground one. Though it's rather small, it's also got fine products, and the people who visit are never just here to buy things."
"Not bad. We're just here to trade currency, so there's no need to visit some huge trading market," Locke nodded with satisfaction.
Torches adorned the walls on each side. The flight of stairs was not exceptionally long, but due to it being underground, the ambience seemed particularly dark and enigmatic. It was a relief that they were all bold, tough men that weren't intimidated by it.